Based on the 1999 novel of the same name by Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn explores a gumshoe’s murder and the impact leaders with immense power can have on society. Blessed with a stellar cast, this period piece succeeds on many fronts.
Set in New York City in 1957, Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) works at a detective agency with Gilbert Coney (Ethan Suplee), Danny Fantl (Dallas Roberts), and Tony Vermonte (Bobby Cannavale). Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), their boss, rescued them all from an abusive Catholic orphanage in Brooklyn. Nicknamed “Motherless Brooklyn” by Frank, Lionel suffers from Tourette syndrome, which makes interactions with people somewhat difficult but his intellect and photographic memory are traits that make him an astute investigator.
One day, Frank asks Lionel and Gilbert to back him up at a meeting. Lionel listens in on the phone as Frank shows documents that could mess up a business deal for William Lieberman (Josh Pais), Lou (Fisher Stevens), and an unnamed henchman (Radu Spinghel). When Frank attempts to raise the price, the men are having none of it and take him to another location where he is found shot by Lionel and Gilbert. They rush him to the hospital, but he dies shortly after arrival.
Frank’s wife, Julia (Leslie Mann), puts Tony in charge of the business and Lionel soon begins an investigation into Frank’s murder. Soon, he finds his way to a Harlem nightclub and discovers that the information Frank found is connected to a woman named Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Rose works for Gabby Horwitz (Cherry Jones), who leads an activist group protesting against gentrification.
Neighborhoods with low-income and minority populations are being forced out to make way for development, with the efforts being lead by Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), a character modeled after Robert Moses, the so-called “master builder” of modern New York City and surrounding areas. Lionel works to uncover the connection between Moses and Frank’s information, all the while developing a romantic attraction with Laura.
Seeing a fictionalized version of Moses was a special treat for me. I first picked up Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and The Fall of New York as a young lad and devoured it in days, absolutely mesmerized by the power Moses wielded and the legacy he literally built from the ground up. It left an indelible impression on me.
As things stand right now, Motherless Brooklyn has totally bombed at the box office, grossing $8.4 million against a $26 million budget. This, in my opinion, is a tragedy. While not perfect, I found it to be a compelling and beautifully done film. Edward Norton gave a skillful performance and I totally disagree with Mick LaSalle’s review where he states that Norton’s portrayal of Tourette’s and the constant explanations of why he is behaving in such a manner is detrimental to the film. Explaining it to various cast members throughout seems quite realistic to me and brushing the whole thing aside after the first time would have damaged the film’s credibility.
Motherless Brooklyn’s rather bloated length of 144 minutes is certainly a concern. In this day and age of instant everything, it’s easily understandable why a film like this would struggle. The story moves slow and methodically, but there is so much material to cover and I feel cutting things to a more manageable time would negatively affect the film’s quality. Also, another possible reason for failure to connect with moviegoers’ pocketbooks could be the fact that the story’s villain is long gone. Robert Moses passed away in 1981 and, outside of certain circles, isn’t terribly well-known to the general public. Regardless of the aforementioned issues, I encourage everyone to give this production a chance.
I give Motherless Brooklyn three and a half stars.